Tribes make first move to court over gaming compact dispute

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Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Following months of public debate with Gov. Kevin Stitt over the state’s tribal gaming compact, three tribes filed a lawsuit hours before the governor claims tribal casinos will be operating illegally.

On Tuesday, the Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes filed a lawsuit in federal court requesting a declaratory judgement on whether the gaming compact automatically renews on Jan. 1 2020, a position held by the tribes.

Stitt believes the compact will expire on Jan. 1 and said this month more than 130 tribal casinos across the state will be violating state law without a new agreement.

“The Governor’s stance on the gaming compact has created uncertainty and has been seen as a threat to our employees and our business partners,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said in a statement. “We see this legal action as the most viable option to restore the clarity and stability the Tribes and Oklahoma both deserve by obtaining a resolution that our compact does automatically renew.”

Approved 15 years ago, the gaming compact includes fees on casino-style gaming ranging from 4 percent to 10 percent, a figure Stitt would like to see significantly increase under a new compact.

On Tuesday, Stitt said he was “disappointed” in the lawsuit and accused the three tribes of not being willing to negotiate, including through a three-panel arbitration out of court he said he offered. 

“The State of Oklahoma offered an extension, with no strings attached, to all tribes that operate casinos in the state, and my door continues to be open for more tribes to join who are worried about impending uncertainty,” Stitt said his statement. 

Stitt also said he had reached agreements with the Kialegee Tribal Town and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians for an eight-month extension of the compact. 

The Kialegee Tribal Town are signed onto to the current compact and are pursuing a casino. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians have attempted to open a casino in the past.  

In a letter to Stitt’s office on Tuesday, the leaders of the three tribes behind the lawsuit said they were willing to discuss a possible fee increase, but only if Stitt agrees the compact automatically renews.

But the lawsuit “is about renewal, not rates,” the letter states.

“Once we have resolved this dispute, we are hopeful we will again work together for the benefit of all Oklahomans. Until then, we will keep our word and abide our renewing compacts.”

Stitt’s office said it was reviewing the lawsuit on Tuesday afternoon before it would issue a comment.

Earlier this month, Stitt said he planned to hire an out-of-state law firm to take the lead in any legal battle with the tribes.

Attorney General Mike Hunter had been the lead negotiator for the state before Stitt announced this month he would assume that role.

Hunter hosted a meeting with tribal leaders in October but no progress was made.

Robert Henry, attorney for the three tribes, sent a letter Tuesday to Hunter informing his office of the lawsuit.

“The Nations’ have appreciated your efforts to find common ground on these matters,” Henry wrote to Hunter. “However, Governor Stitt’s continued rejection of — and even ridicule for — the Compacts’ plain terms and his recent allegations against them and threats to their operations have left them with no reasonable option other than to file this lawsuit.”

The state received nearly $140 million in gaming fees last fiscal year, with most going to the Education Reform Revolving Fund, along with some to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

“I’m glad the tribes filed this lawsuit so we can get some clarity,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin.

Legislative leaders have been relatively quiet about the gaming compact dispute, but Virgin said she disagreed with the approach Stitt had taken.

“I always push back on the idea this is not a legislative issue because … we build that revenue into our budget each year,” said Virgin, D-Norman.

Virgin said she is open to the state negotiating higher gaming fees, but “I think this attempt to quadruple some of these fees is very unreasonable on the governor’s part.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from the governor. 

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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